April 28, 2009
They sport very similar eyes, smiles, hair color and an easy humor sprinkled with inside jokes. Will Hunter and Laura Hunter Collins, partners in the Missouri Bootheel-based Willow and Company farming venture, are obviously siblings.
IN 2003, SIBLINGS Will Hunter and Laura Hunter Collins formed the Bootheel-based farming partnership, Willow and Company. Along with their father, Sam, Laura says Willow’s goal is to “keep this a family operation and only grow it wisely.”
The pair is also an anomaly: fresh-faced, Delta-based youngsters who not only want to farm, but are passionate about it.
Here, teetering on the very northern edge of the Cotton Belt just to the west of Sikeston, Mo., the soils are nearly black and prepped in anticipation of seed. Back in 1940, the pair’s grandfather, William Pinnell Hunter Sr. — from a banking and levee construction background in New Madrid, Mo. — came to the area with his brother, Furg, and began buying and leasing timber ground to clear and grow cotton.
“So, my father moved to Sikeston to clear the land and begin farming,” says Sam M. Hunter, son of W.P and farm manager. “In those days, almost everything grown around here was cotton. That was the big crop. With WWII coming on, cotton was obviously valuable.”
Until a couple of old Caterpillar D-7 dozers were procured, the land was cleared with mule teams. It was back-breaking work, but simple: ring and chop trees, burn the land off and then plant. Almost immediately, the wisdom of moving to the area was apparent.
“Right out of the box, the soils here — mostly Sharkey clay, although we have some river loam to the west — proved to be very fertile,” says Sam. “They were making 1-bale or 1.5-bale cotton to the acre the first cotton crop. That’s incredible! They got that yield without fertilizer, without irrigation — just plant and pick.”
At the same time he was clearing land, W.P. built a gin and company store to accommodate a sharecropping operation. Farmers would set up on 40-acre or 80-acre tracks. Each 40 acres had a house on it. Each 80-acre parcel had two houses and a barn where mules were kept.
“When I was a boy, a lot of the sharecropper houses and barns were still standing,” says Sam. “Of course, by then, they weren’t using mules. But a lot of the farm labor who worked for my dad lived in those old houses. Now, unfortunately, all that is gone — torn down, burned down, whatever.”
If anyone was destined to work the family land, it was Will. That’s what friends and family say. And, growing up, Laura was nearly as resolute.
“I don’t think either one of us envisioned ourselves far from Sikeston,” she says. “We’re hometown kids. Our roots are deep here. Will has wanted to farm since Day One. He was in our grandfather’s truck from the time he was three years old.”
When Will was in high school and preparing to graduate, several close friends often visited the family house. “I’d ask them what their plans were, where they’d attend college, what they’d major in,” says Sam. “It wasn’t always clear what they wanted.
“One of them told me: ‘You don’t know how lucky you are. Will’s always known what he wants to do.’ That is absolutely true. Even when he was a little kid in school, all the kids knew Will wanted to farm.”
Will wanted to farm so badly, in fact, that he was uninterested in college. “I think most teenage boys looking to farm want to get started as soon as possible,” says Laura. “You know, ‘College? What’s the point?’”
However, Sam and his wife, Erica, were determined that all their children (including oldest son, Sam, and Will’s twin, Seth) would be college graduates. To bring the point home, his father recalls telling Will, “‘Unless you get a college degree, you can’t farm the family land.’ He could tell we were totally serious.”
Will was soon at Mississippi State University where he would earn a degree in agricultural economics degree in 1999. Sam says Will came home saying college “was one of the best experiences of his life and he couldn’t believe he almost didn’t attend.”
“I learned a lot, met a lot of really great people with similar backgrounds and interests and developed a network I still use today,” says Will. “I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.”
Laura also attended MSU where she earned an agriculture business.
Why Mississippi State?
“One word: agriculture,” says Laura. “They teach about Southern crops. They don’t teach about cotton and rice at the University of Missouri.”
Farming was a second career choice for Laura. Once in it, though, “I very quickly saw why Will loves it and why my father comes out here every day. I enjoy farming and really miss not being in the shop and driving the tractors. Last year, before planting, I ran all the variable-rate dry fertilizer and loved it. Coming back to the office was kind of a let-down.”
After university, Will farmed from 1999 to 2002 by himself. Laura graduated from MSU in 2003.
“My intention was to come home and sell chemicals or seed — become a company rep of some sort,” says Laura. “But I graduated in May and the crops were already planted. Very little employment was available.”
That made a partnership with her brother very intriguing. And Will put on the hard sell.
“We see eye-to-eye, I needed a partner and Laura had the knowledge and work ethic required,” says Will. “She’d scouted cotton for four summers with Bill and Derek Emerine (Bill currently scouts Willow’s cotton). She’s had a lot of experience walking fields in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas. Coming into this, the fields were nothing new for her.”
In 2003, Willow and Company was formed. Is there any significance to the name?
“When we were kids, I always called Laura ‘Lo-lo,’” recalls Will. “So ‘Willow’ just sounded right.”
Until late 2005, the two were in the field equally. But Laura, having married in June 2004, decided to start a family and needed to stay out of close contact with most chemicals and equipment.
Will amusingly recalls: “Laura did run the catch buggy very well and had to do so at 8.5 months pregnant. It was a sight — muddin’ out rice. If the combine wasn’t getting stuck, the catch buggy was. Under normal circumstances, which those were far from, I would have said, ‘Get down there and hook that cable up.’ But I had to bite my tongue. At the end of the day, I think we cut 10,000 bushels, had gotten stuck four times, and Laura didn’t have a spot of mud on her. Tough day.”
By the time she delivered a baby girl in the fall of 2006, Laura had largely moved into the scale house and company headquarters at Hunter Gin, Inc., the old gin site.
“By then, our bookkeeper, David Dalton, had been with us for close to 40 years,” says Sam. “He was nearing retirement and, with Laura moving to the office, the timing was perfect. He worked another three years and retired in March of this year.”
Those three years gave Laura plenty of time to get up to speed on the books and acclimated to the business side of the partnership. She is now the full-time bookkeeper for the whole operation.
“I pretty much run all the day-to-day work outside the office: the field prep, planting, irrigation, maintenance, overseeing the grain facility,” says Will. “Laura, of course, runs the scales and does all the bean-counting. She’s meticulous with the numbers and makes sure everything matches up. I delegate from my end through my foreman, my mechanic and two others on our payroll.”
The gin building and several surrounding structures are now empty. The Hunters had everything “cut up and pulled out the summer before last,” says Sam. “My dad ran that gin until 1977 when times were bad for the cotton business: prices were poor and the weather wasn’t conducive to cotton. He was 67 years old by then and had gotten fed up with it.
“So, he closed down the cotton gin and began growing rice. That’s how we got into the rice business.”
What’s the typical acreage breakdown for Willow and Company?
Normally, “we plant a third of our acreage in rice — 1,600 acres this year,” says Will. “We only got back into cotton last year — about 700 acres — when the equipment got cheap. This year, we’ll have about 525 acres of cotton. That’s less than 15 percent of our approximately 4,200 acres. The rest are in grains — about 800 acres of corn and the rest in soybeans.”
Final planting decisions will fluctuate, depending on what happens in the markets.
Several rows of bins surround the Hunter Gin headquarters. Very little of the operation’s grain is sold straight out of the field. Almost all of it goes across the scale and into the bins. A few months later, when basis loosens and prices go up, the grain will be sold.
The bins are a necessity, says Sam, pointing to a freshly poured concrete slab that will soon anchor another 50,000-bushel bin. “We’re probably 25 miles from the nearest good riverside elevator. We just don’t have the truck power to haul from the field to the river and come back in a reasonable time frame. The line stacks up there trying to unload.”
So intent were the Hunters to market their grain in such a manner that, in 2006, they filled part of an empty, former de-linter building with 18,000 bushels of corn. All the original gin structures are now being converted to flat storage to hold an additional 80,000 bushels.
Currently, Laura says, there are two main goals for Willow and Company: “Keep this a family operation and only grow it wisely.”
Will agrees with his sister. “Any ground we pick up won’t be marginal. We’re trying to make sure everything we do is well-thought through and planned. The fewer surprises there are the better.”
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